Following Sunday's 24-17 win over the Jets in New York, the Patriots sit atop the AFC East with a 4-2 record that's only a game off the best mark in the NFL.
But there is little question that the defending champions don't exactly look the part of a dominant Super Bowl contender at this point, admittedly in a league that appears to be lacking few if any such squads mid-way through October.
During his traditional day-after-game conference call with the local media, Bill Belichick was asked about the evolution a team makes through a season, building on its training camp foundation as the year wears on.
In the midst of the 789-word answer, Belichick seemed to veer off into an unsolicited response to his team's early-season critics.
"To think realistically, which it's incomprehensible to me, but, I mean, I don't know. Maybe I just can't figure it out, but it's incomprehensible to me how anybody could think that a team that's practiced for six months and played 19 regular season and postseason games and had triple-digit practices, five months later, after not playing a game, after having a fraction of that type of experience, could be anywhere close to the level of execution that they were five months before that after all of the things that I just listed. I mean, it's impossible in my view," Belichick said. "So, each year, you start all over again. You start that process all over again. You build your team over the course of the year though practice repetitions, through preseason to regular season games, through the evolving of your scheme, and that's why each year is different and unique. But, I understand I'm in the minority and most other people don't see it that way, which is OK, but that's the way I see it."
Beyond his long and somewhat obvious answer regarding teams being anything but a finished product early in the year, here are some of the other highlights of Belichick's Monday morning conference call, including praise for Malcolm Butler's key interception, Tom Brady's pass protection and the New England run defense.
1. Butler's "outstanding" interception: With Stephon Gilmore (concussion) and Eric Rowe (groin) inactive, there was little doubt that the Patriots much-maligned pass defense was undermanned Sunday afternoon in New York. There is also little doubt that the group had its issues, the 32nd-ranked pass defense allowing journeyman Jets passer Josh McCown to throw for 354 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
But the unit, especially Butler, also made some big plays that allowed the Patriots to escape New York with the victory. One of those was Butler's second-quarter interception in which the former Pro Bowler made a great read to come back to the ball for the pick, a turnover that stopped another potential Jets scoring drive and gave Brady and Co. a chance to tie the game at 14 heading into halftime.
Butler has had an interesting season, including not being worthy of a starting job in Week 2 in New Orleans, but when his defense needed him he clearly came up big on Sunday.
"He got a real hard stem release there from [Robby] Anderson going inside," Belichick said when asked about the play. "He ended up inside the receiver and then undercut the route and got his head around, made a great play on the ball and really it was a pretty well-executed route and throw. I mean, the ball was right there. It really wasn't behind the receiver. It was right on him, but Malcolm just made a great play there, kind of like the play that [Jeremy] Kerley made on Jonathan Jones. Jonathan was in great position and went up and played the ball perfectly. It was a great throw and a great catch. I mean, players in this league make great plays. That was an outstanding play by Malcolm."
2. Positive performance for the pass protection: Given that Brady missed practice time to a left shoulder injury last week and that he was on pace to be sacked a career-high 51 times this season, New England's pass protection was a major talking point heading into Week 6.
Well, after holding the Jets without a sack and allowing Brady to be hit just four times, the group has to feel good about the way it answered its critics. With just seven sacks on the season, New York doesn't present the biggest challenge in pass protection, but there is no question the action against the Jets was a clear step in the right direction for Nate Solder and the entire group protecting TB12.
Belichick made it clear that the work was a reflection of all areas involved in the pass protection process and that the improvement needs to continue moving forward.
"I don't think we had a lot of major issues with pass protection," Belichick acknowledged after watching the tape from the win over the Jets. "I mean, I think overall our passing game wasn't particularly efficient. We had a couple plays, they got us on a couple of pressures where they schemed up a look and then had a little variation off it. They beat the protection, so they did a good job coaching-wise of setting up a couple things. That's really not a player issue. That's more of a scheme issue for us, but they hit us a couple times. You always want the protection to be a little bit better, but I thought part of it was the running game, and we took a little bit of the edge off the pass rush by being able to have some productive runs, which is always a good thing. I'd say our ability to get open and create some separation on a couple of the third down plays was good so we didn't have to stand there and hold the ball and we got it out quicker. I mean, we'll see. Every game's a little bit different. We're certainly going to see a good pass rush this week and a little bit different type of rush than what we saw against the Jets. Every week's got its own challenges."
3. "Defensive line did a lot of good things":With Alan Branch returning to action and Malcom Brown showing improvement to put forth maybe his best game of the season, the Patriots overall run defense had easily its best performance of the year in New York. The Jets ran the ball 24 times for 74 yards, just a 3.1-yard averaging against a Patriots run defense that came in ranking 24th in the NFL. It was by far the lowest production on the ground by a New England opponent this season and just the second time in six games an opponent has averaged below 4.5 yards per carry.
Belichick praised the entirety of his front for the effort, emphasizing that the third-year former first-round pick Brown is "getting better every week."
"I thought we got contributions from all those players – Lawrence [Guy], Alan [Branch], Malcom [Brown] and Adam [Butler] gave us some snaps in there, too, that were good. They all have a little bit different playing style, but they were all productive," Belichick said. "It certainly helps our linebacker play when the defensive line plays consistent and they can do a good job in front and then the linebackers can do a good job and then the secondary can fit off them, so it works in front of that. But, I thought our defensive line did a lot of good things yesterday. There's still a lot of things we need to work on, obviously. I'm not saying we're there yet, but we did a lot of good things up front. Like I said, I think Malcom's improved pretty much every week. I know he's definitely helping us making some significant plays for us out there and, again, eating up a lot of plays in front of him so that other guys, like Elandon [Roberts], Kyle [Van Noy], Dont'a [Hightower] and those guys, can fit in and make the tackles."